U.Va. Study Finds Secondary Teacher Coaching Program Improves Student Test Scores

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August 18, 2011 — Coaching middle and high school teachers to enhance the quality of their interactions with students leads to significant gains in students' end-of-school-year achievement test scores, according to a study by researchers at the University of Virginia.

The study, "An Interaction-Based Approach to Enhancing Secondary School Instruction and Student Achievement," is published in the Aug. 19 issue of the journal Science.

This is the first study to evaluate the effectiveness of a professional development portfolio for teachers called MyTeachingPartner-Secondary, or MTP-S, created by researchers at U.Va.'s Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning, or CASTL. It is also the first to show that improvements of teachers' interactions with students lead to substantial gains in high-stakes, state standardized tests.

MTP-S is a highly structured online coaching program focused on improving the quality of teacher-student interactions in the classroom. Originally developed by Robert Pianta, dean of U.Va.'s Curry School of Education and director of CASTL, and already proven effective in early childhood programs, MTP-S was further developed and extended for middle and high school teachers through a collaboration between Pianta and Joseph Allen, Hugh P. Kelly Professor of Psychology in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences.

In the study of 78 secondary school teachers and 2,237 students, Allen and Pianta found that students whose teachers participated in MTP-S Web-mediated coaching scored better on their achievement tests by 9 percentile points than students whose teachers were not coached. The improvements in students' test scores were evident across four subject areas (math, science, history and language arts), demonstrating the value of teacher-student interactions and relationships for academic performance.

"This result is important because it is one of the only approaches to improving the general quality of teachers in secondary schools that has been rigorously documented to work across content areas," Allen said.

"Improving teaching quality is widely recognized as critical to addressing deficiencies in secondary school education," Pianta said. However, "the field has few, if any, rigorously evaluated teacher-development approaches that can produce reliable gains in student achievement."

The study also demonstrates the importance of the quality of students' interactions with teachers. It not only matters whether a teacher knows math; it matters that she or he knows adolescents and how to interact with them and engage them in learning, Pianta said.

The MTP-S program pairs teachers with coaches, recruited and trained by CASTL, who review teacher-provided video of their classroom teaching. The coach carefully isolates teacher-student interactions using the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an observational measure of teacher-student interactions better known as CLASS, as a guide. The coach identifies key behaviors and provides feedback to the teacher using annotated video and prompts posted online; the coach guides the teacher through the observation and reflection of his or her own video footage, followed by non-evaluative feedback and support from the coach.

"The fact that the program is non-evaluative and ongoing throughout the school year are some of the strongest features, in my mind," said Sharon Deal, research scientist on the project and MTP-S coach. "Teachers realize they are collaborating with a coach who structures and guides their analysis of their practice."

The strength of the student-teacher relationship and interactions makes MTP-S effective for improving student learning and motivation, Allen and Pianta said; students work harder and are more focused when they feel and experience a stronger connection with a teacher who is involved with them. The researchers describe the MTP impact as "activating" the capacity of the classroom to foster student learning and development.

This study also focused on the costs of the MTP-S program. Estimates suggest that it successfully increases student learning for as little as $40 per student, per year.

"We found that with this unique, and relatively low-cost coaching intervention with teachers, we could produce significant gains in their students' test scores," Allen said.

Another key element to the success of MTP-S is its effectiveness across all types of classrooms. The study saw that the teachers of high school English and the teachers of middle school science showed similar rates of test-score gains. The gains were also seen in classrooms comprising students from low-income homes as well as those comprising students from middle-class families. The gains were also steady across racial and ethnic categories.

"The fact that these findings are consistent across all of the major subject areas shows that MTP-S is effective for teachers of any student in any content area," Pianta said. "Knowing how to improve student learning for any student is significant. Having uncovered a way to improve learning for all middle and high school students is a very big deal."

"At a time when our secondary schools are under fire and one-fourth of entering ninth-graders fail to receive a high-school diploma four years later, the field is clearly desperate for ways to improve outcomes for teens," Allen said. "This appears to be a remarkably promising approach to improving those outcomes."


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Rebecca P. Arrington

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